HR · 16 April 2019

Paid and unpaid leave UK: Everything you need to know

Read about paid and unpaid leave

The differences between paid and unpaid leave are not always as clear as you might think. Sometimes the difference is obvious. But life can be complicated, and managing work-life balance can be difficult for employees and employers alike. In some cases, employees can take legal action if they think their employer is treating them unfairly.

This article breaks down the different types of paid and unpaid leave and helps you understand where you need to make choices as an employer. Please remember that Business Advice is not a law firm and this article is not a replacement for proper legal advice.

Paid leave: The different types and the law

Paid leave is when an employee takes time off work and receives money from you as their employer. The main types of paid leave are maternity, paternity, sick and annual leave. Here’s what the current UK law says about them.

Paid maternity leave and the law

Learn about paid and unpaid leave

What is paid maternity leave?

Maternity leave is the time off work granted to an employee before and after giving birth.

  • The maximum an employee can take off is 52 weeks’ maternity leave
    • ‘Ordinary maternity leave’ covers the first 26 weeks
    • ‘Additional maternity leave’ covers the second 26 weeks
  • Unless the baby is born early, the earliest an employee can take leave is 11 weeks before the week of the due date
  • An employee must take at least two weeks of leave after the birth, or four if they are a factory worker

What does the current UK law say about it?

Eligible employees can receive statutory maternity pay for up to 39 weeks.

Usually they will receive 90% of their average weekly earnings before tax for the first six weeks, followed by £148.68 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the remaining 33 weeks.

Use the government’s maternity leave calculator for employers to calculate an employee’s maternity pay.

Bear in mind:

  • Some employment types – such as directors, agency workers and educational workers – affect what you pay
  • If your company has a maternity scheme, you can offer more than the statutory amounts
  • Some of your employees will not qualify for both leave and pay
  • You still have to pay statutory maternity pay if you stop trading

Paid paternity leave and the law

Understand paid and unpaid leave

What is paid paternity leave?

Paternity leave is the time off work granted to an employee if they and their partner are having a baby, adopting a child or having a baby through a surrogacy arrangement.

  • The maximum an employee can take off is two weeks:
    • An employee can choose to take one week or two consecutive weeks’ leave
    • If an employee has more than one child – e.g. twins or triplets – the amount of time remains the same
  • Paternity leave can only start on:
    • The actual date of birth
    • An agreed number of days after the birth
    • Or an agreed number of days after the expected due date

What does the current UK law say about it?

Eligible employees receive statutory paternity pay of either £148.68 per week or 90% of their average weekly earnings: whichever is lower.

Use the government’s paternity leave calculator for employers to work out an employee’s paternity pay.

Bear in mind:

  • Some employment types – such as directors, agency workers and educational workers – affect what you pay
  • An employee can take unpaid leave to accompany a pregnant woman to antenatal appointments providing they are:
    • The father of the baby
    • The expectant mother’s civil partner or spouse
    • In a long-term relationship with the expectant mother
    • The intended parent (i.e. they are having a baby through a surrogacy arrangement)
  • Paternity leave start and end dates differ if an employee is adopting

As an employer, you can get financial help with statutory pay.

Paid sick leave and the law

What is paid sick leave?

Paid sick leave, or statutory sick pay, is what you pay an employee if they are ill for at least four consecutive days (including non-working days). From the fourth ‘qualifying day’ – a day an employee is usually required to work – you start paying statutory sick pay.

However, if an employee has worked for a minute or more before going home sick you cannot count that day as a sick day.

What does the current UK law say about it?

Eligible employees receive statutory sick pay of £94.25 for up to 28 weeks. They receive it on their usual payday for the days they would normally work, known as ‘qualifying days’. You should deduct tax and National Insurance as usual.

Use the government’s sick pay calculator for employers to work out an employee’s sick pay.

Bear in mind:

  • Some employment types – such as directors, agency workers and educational workers – affect what you pay
  • If your company has a sick pay scheme, you can offer more than the statutory amount
  • No matter how long employees are off sick, they accrue annual leave and can take it during sick leave
  • If an employee is eligible for sick leave you cannot force them to take annual leave
  • An employee could be fit for work in one job, but qualify for sick pay in another, e.g. if one role requires manual labour while the other is based in an office
  • You may still have to pay statutory sick pay if you stop trading

Paid compassionate leave and the law

What is paid compassionate leave?

Compassionate leave is the time an employee takes off to look after a dependant, or sick relative. Bereavement leave refers specifically to the time an employee takes off following the death of a loved one.

What does the current UK law say about it?

There is currently no legal obligation in the UK for employers to offer staff either compassionate leave or bereavement leave. However, there is no law preventing employers from offering staff compassionate or bereavement leave – paid or unpaid. You can therefore incorporate your company’s approach to compassionate leave entitlement into your employment contracts as you wish.

A worker is also entitled to a reasonable period of unpaid time off when a dependant is involved in the following emergencies:

  • Illness, injury or assault
  • Having a baby
  • Disruption of care arrangements
  • Their child is involved in an incident at school

Paid annual leave and the law

Read about paid and unpaid leave

What is paid annual leave?

Annual leave is the number of paid days’ holiday you are entitled to each year, known as statutory leave entitlement or annual leave. Most workers are legally entitled to 5.6 weeks or 28 days of paid holiday a year, including the UK’s eight bank holidays.

What does the current UK law say about it?

The limit for statutory paid holiday entitlement is 28 days. So an employee working six days a week, for example, would only be entitled to 28 days’ paid holiday. You can, however, offer employees more holidays through a separate company policy.

A part-time worker is entitled to at least 5.6 weeks’ paid annual leave, but it will amount to fewer than 28 days. For example, an employee working half hours would receive 14 days. An employee working three days a week must receive at least 16.8 days.

Use the government’s annual leave calculator to work out an employee’s holiday entitlement.

Bear in mind:

  • As an employer, you can refuse to give workers leave at certain times, but you can’t refuse to let them take leave at all
  • A worker may be able to take the remainder of their annual leave during their notice period – the amount depends on how much of the holiday year has passed
  • As an employer you don’t have to give bank or public holidays as paid leave. You can choose whether you include bank holidays as part of a worker’s statutory annual leave

Please remember that Business Advice is not a law firm and this article is not a replacement for proper legal advice.

Unpaid leave: When you can take it and the law

There are various instances when an employee can take unpaid leave from work. In some cases you may decide you want to pay them, but this is at your discretion as an employer. It’s often helpful, however, to state your position on the different types of leave in your employment contracts or employee handbook.

Here are the main scenarios in which an employee can take unpaid leave.

When can you take unpaid leave in the UK?

Time for dependants

Time off for dependants is when an employee takes time off work to deal with an emergency involving a dependant. This could be a child, grandchild, parent, spouse, partner, or someone who depends on them for care.

Parental leave

Discover paid and unpaid leave

Unpaid parental leave is what an eligible employee can take to look after their child’s welfare. This could be to spend more time with their children, look at new schools, help children adapt to new childcare arrangements, or to spend more time with other family members such as grandparents.

Career breaks

A career break is when an employee takes time off work for an extended period, e.g. six months.

Public duties

An employee can take time off work for certain public duties on top of their normal holiday entitlement. You can choose to pay them for this time, but you don’t have to.

Compassionate and bereavement leave

As mentioned above, compassionate leave is when an employee takes time off to look after a dependant or sick relative. Bereavement leave refers to the time an employee takes off following the death of a loved one.

There is no law that prevents employers from offering staff compassionate or bereavement leave – paid or unpaid.

What are the laws surrounding unpaid leave in the UK?

Time for dependants

  • There is no set amount of time an employee can take off as it depends on the situation
  • There is no limit to the number of times an employee can take time off for dependants
  • You can choose to pay an employee to look after a dependant, but you don’t have to
  • An employee can’t take time off for a dependant if they knew about the situation beforehand. If they took a child to a hospital appointment, for example, they could request parental leave instead

Parental leave

  • An employee’s rights to pay, holidays and returning to a job remain protected during parental leave
  • An employee can take up to 4 weeks of parental leave each year for each child until their 18th birthday
  • Parental leave applies to each child not to an employee’s job

Career breaks

  • A career break is an agreement between you and an employee. There is no law that deals specifically with career breaks
  • You and an employee can make arrangements for their return to work after a career break, but this is not a legally binding agreement
  • An employee can’t take legal action if you decide they can’t return to their, or a similar, job

Public duties

  • You can choose to pay staff for time off for public duties, but you don’t have to
  • Agency workers, members of the armed forces or police service, merchant seamen, those employed on fishing vessels or off-shore rigs and certain civil servants can’t take time off work for public duties
  • An employee in the reserve forces has certain protections under employment law if called up for service
  • As an employer of a reservist you may be able to apply for an exemption or claim financial assistance

 

There is more crossover between paid and unpaid leave than you might have thought. In situations where the law is less clear, even non existent, it’s best to be upfront with employees in your employment contracts or employee handbook. This avoids confusion and helps employees to make preparations where necessary.

Please remember that Business Advice is not a law firm and this article is not a replacement for proper legal advice. See the government’s guidance on employing people for more details.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Olly Goodall is an editor at Business Advice. He researches, creates and delivers diverse content types such as blogs, SlideShares, eGuides, interviews and more. Working with clients to tailor content to each target audience, he is involved throughout the creative process, from content brainstorming through to keyword research and content creation. With experience client side and agency side, he has written online and offline content for a range of sectors, including tech, education, transport and finance.

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